Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
ON THE NEWS, they keep playing the video. The cops are striking the black man with their boots and batons across the soft of his body and the hard of his skull, until I guess they felt like they’d truly broken him, and, sure enough, they had. Four of the cops who beat him are on trial right now, a trial that some say is a battle for the very soul of the city, or even the country itself. It’s something I should give a shit about, but I don’t—not now.
Right now, birds chirp, palm trees sway, and it’s the kinda Friday where the city seems intent on being a postcard of itself. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch are on the radio singing “Good Vibrations,” and it’s no Beach Boys, but it’ll do. Heather and I do the running man and hump the air to the beat; this even though she’s told us, in no uncertain terms, that this song is lame, and the rest of us have terrible taste in music. We’re several weeks away from being done with high school, and when I think about it too hard, it terrifies me. So right now I’m trying really hard not to care about anything at all.
After we exhaust ourselves, Heather and I collapse on the old pool chairs with their broken slats. The plastic creates geometry on my skin. Heather is pudgy and sometimes doesn’t shave her pits. I can see the dark of her hair in patches in the center of her pasty outstretched arms. How she manages to stay that pale given how long and how often we bake ourselves, I don’t know. It’s a spectacular feat of whiteness. Her lime-green toenail polish is chipped so that each nail vaguely resembles a state in the Midwest. Courtney’s pool vaguely resembles a kidney.
Across from us, Kimberly and Courtney stretch their bodies out across two fat plastic donuts that are pink and tacky and rainbow sprinkled. They float into each other’s orbits and back out again. Every so often they splash water at each other and shriek, “Omigod, stop it!”
Heather yells, “Jesus, get a room already.”
Courtney laughs and squeezes Kimberly’s boob like it’s a horn.
They’ve ditched class two times a week for the last month. I don’t ditch nearly as often as my friends do. But my parents and I are supposed to meet my crazy sister’s new husband tonight, and it’s gonna be a doozy of an evening, so it kinda felt like I owed it to my sanity to not be at school today.
These are the places we go—the mall, somebody’s pool, or our favorite, the beach. Our parents hate Venice because it’s dirty and there are too many homeless people, tourists, and boom boxes blasting, which means we love it. We flop across our boogie boards and stare into the horizon. Occasionally, a wave comes and we’ll half-heartedly ride it into the sand, our knees scraping against the grain. Then we stand, recover our bikinis from our butt cheeks, and charge back into the water like Valkyries. Afterward, we eat at this place the size of my closet, where even the walls are greasy. The interior is bloodred and peeling, and a fat Italian caricature in neon announces, “PIZZA!” Just in case you couldn’t tell. The previous owner, Georgi, was a skinny Italian with a villainous mustache who gave us free cookies; now the owner is a skinny Korean named Kim who does not.
After we eat, we watch the men with muscles like boulders under their skin, all of them so glazed and brown that the black men don’t look so different from the white men and everything in between. Most of them lift barbells, but some of them lift and balance on top of each other, a grunting tangle of bodies in short shorts and muscle tees. Last weekend, one of the men grabbed Kimberly and lifted her up to the sky like an offering.
Afterward he tried to convince us to come back to his place, like we would be dumb enough to go just because he was blond and tan and could balance like a circus elephant.
“I’ve got alcohol,” he said.
“Tempting, but no,” Heather said.
“I wasn’t talking to you anyway,” he said.
“Ew, we’re only seventeen,” Courtney yelled when he grabbed at her.
“Then maybe you shouldn’t walk around looking like that,” he snapped back.
Heather kneed him in the nuts; then we took off running down the boardwalk.
“Hey, you little sluts!”
Tourists with sunscreened noses took pictures of us running, our heads thrown back with laughter. But when we were far enough away, we crossed our arms in front of our chests, and Courtney bought a muscle tee with a kitten in a bikini that said “Venice, CA” from a nearby vendor. She threw it over herself like a security blanket.
That’s why we decided to go to Courtney’s house today. Here, we can wear our string bikinis like highlighters, bright neon signs that introduce us as women. It’s better that there’s nobody around to introduce us to.
Courtney gets out of the pool and walks over to where Heather and I lie on the deck chairs. She prances like the show pony she is across the hot concrete and squishes her butt next to mine until we’re both on the chair together. We’re so close I can feel her heartbeat. The hairs on her body are fine and blond; she shimmers a bit.
Courtney threads her arm through mine. The water from her body feels good against my skin.
“Would you rather… make out with Mr. Holmes, or with Steve Ruggles?” Kimberly’s stomach is already bright red. She burns easily, and once, after we went to Disneyland, she spent the whole week shedding herself like a snake.
“Both. At the same time,” Heather deadpans.
Steve Ruggles is built like a Twinkie, round and a little jaundiced. He sucks at intervals along the length of his arms, giving himself little purple bruises like lipstick smears. He has always been nice to me, but he’s also undeniably strange, a boy who kisses himself while we learn about the Battle of Gettysburg. Mr. Holmes is our AP physics teacher, and half his face is cut into jagged ridges like the cliffs along the ocean. The rumor is he was in a fire as a baby. Somebody else said it was a laboratory explosion. Both seem like superhero origin stories, and Mr. Holmes does kinda carry himself like somebody with a secret life. Although maybe that’s just because he’s different, and sometimes being different means hiding pieces of yourself away so other people’s mean can’t find them. Occasionally in class, I used to close one eye and see one half of him, then close the other to try to see the other half, like when you look at one of those charts at the eye doctor’s. When I did that for long enough, both the scars and the good started to fade, so his face was a soft, mostly kind blur. Anyway, I think he caught me once, and so now I keep both eyes open wider than usual around him.
“Leave them alone,” I say.
“I bet Mr. Holmes would be a good lay. Ugly guys try harder,” Kimberly says. Kimberly acts like she knows everything about everything, even sex, which she’s never had.
“So do you think I should do the entire thing or, like, leave a strip?” she says. The moles down the side of her sunburned body look like chocolate chips in strawberry ice cream.
“Leave your muff alone,” Heather says.
Kimberly is getting her hoo-ha waxed for prom next week, and you’d think she was going in for open-heart surgery.
“I think a strip looks good,” she says.
“Definitely.” Courtney agrees with everything Kimberly says. Their moms are best friends, and they were born two weeks apart. They’re more like sisters than friends. Kimberly’s first name is actually Courtney, too, ’cause their moms wanted their daughters to be twinsies. For a while, we called them Courtney One and Courtney Two, until Courtney Two had a growth spurt in sixth grade and everybody started calling her Big Courtney. That’s when she started going by her middle name. Kimberly is superskinny, tall, and blond; Courtney is skinny-ish, short, and blond. Both have fake noses, and I’ve known them since the first day of school when we were five and Kimberly (then Courtney Two) still wet the bed.
Growing older with other people means stretching and growing and shrinking in all the right or wrong places so that sometimes you look at your friend’s face and it’s like a fun-house mirror reflection of what it used to be. Like, I used to have buckteeth that pushed their way into the world well before the rest of me, and a big-ass bobblehead on a superskinny body. I think I’ve mostly grown into myself now—though I do worry that my head might still be a tad big. That’s the stuff you can see, though. It’s easier to see those changes in yourself than what happens on the inside. Easier to see that stuff in other people, too.
For instance, now Courtney and Kimberly aren’t into much other than themselves and boys, but Courtney used to be big into bugs. She used to collect roly-polies and ladybugs and sometimes these nasty-looking beetles. And then when we were in junior high, she got big into lepidopterology, which is all about butterflies and moths and stuff. It’s a bit morbid, if you ask me, taking beautiful things and pinning them down to be admired. But that’s kinda like what happens to some girls between junior high and high school, when being pretty gets in the way of being a full person.
I miss what we used to talk about then, when we’d have sleepovers, our sleeping bags like cocoons, and play Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board and lift each other up higher and higher still with the tips of our fingers. I used to yammer endlessly about horses, even in junior high when my friends were more into the idea of riding boys. As far as I was concerned, Jason R. was all right, but he couldn’t cleanly jump a triple bar. And as far as I knew, he didn’t nuzzle you as though you were the only person in the world when you fed him baby carrots. And when Jason was drenched in sweat, it definitely didn’t look majestic, even if Courtney and all the rest of the eighth-grade girls begged to differ. Eventually, I took a jump too fast and fell and broke my clavicle right before graduating from eighth grade. I stopped riding then, which I think my parents secretly didn’t mind too much, ’cause they were paying a buttload for lessons. I was afraid that the next time I fell, I’d break my neck. I don’t remember being afraid much before that. Anyway, Jason R. tried to make out with me at a party last year, but he’s not anywhere near as cute as he was in eighth grade and he smells like spit, so I politely declined.
The other day, I leaned in to Courtney and said, “Remember your butterfly collection?” She scrunched up her new nose, frowned, and said, “That was so lame. Why would you even bring that up?” As if instead of whispering about butterflies I’d told the whole school how she’d wet her sleeping bag at my house that one time in junior high.
We’re cheerleaders, and that makes some people think we’re stupid, but we’re not. Our bodies are power—like what I feel in my thighs when I bend and throw my full weight into a back tuck, that rush of blood to my head as for a few moments I feel weightless, knees tucked into my chest, skirt flying, before gravity catches up to me. Right there, in a tumbling pass, is the light and heavy of being a girl all at once.
“?‘Woman is the nigger of the world,’?” Heather declared one day at lunch while Kimberly and Courtney tried on each other’s lip gloss. It was around the time she stopped shaving her pits. At first I thought maybe I’d heard her wrong. But I know what that word feels like in my ears, the way my heart beats faster when I hear it. Even so, I tried to rationalize it. “I’m a Jewess and you’re a Negress,” she used to say as a joke. For a little while in ninth grade she even called us the two “Esses.” I think it was her way of trying to find the black humor in the black numbers tattooed up her bubbe’s forearm, the black humor in my black skin.
Courtney sighed and said, “Don’t say that word with Ashley sitting right here.”
“It’s cool. I get what she means,” I said. I’m always saying things are cool when maybe they aren’t. Sometimes I have so much to say that I can’t say anything at all.
The doorbell rings and it’s the boys. Things were easier before them. The first boy came in sixth grade. Travis Wilson and Courtney walked around school hand in hand and even kissed at the spring formal before they broke up that summer, when she decided he was taking up too much of her time. The second boy came the next fall. Brandon Sanders wasn’t so bright, but he was pretty, and Kimberly liked having him around because she was going through her awkward phase when everybody called her Big Courtney. She needed to feel pretty. To feel wanted. I think that’s why she let him touch her boobs, and down below, too, which he then told the whole school about so that the boys ran around saying “Sniff my fingers” as a joke for a month straight. We became known as the “fast” girls, which meant that the other girls talked shit about us, but also wanted to be us. The third boy came for Heather. Charlie Thomas played in a band in his garage, and Heather would sit around and listen to them practice. Sometimes she would drag us along, too. Her relationship with Charlie ended when she caught him with the lead singer, Keith, and we probably should’ve seen that coming. Soon enough we were under attack, and there were more boys and more boys still. Boys with muscles. Boys with money. Funny boys. Skinny boys. Boys who were men and should’ve known better. Boys who told me how cool I was and asked if they should buy my friends red roses or pink roses or no roses at all. Boys at school dances who brushed up against my fingertips and thighs and told me how pretty I was before running off to dark corners with my blond friends.
Our boys are drunk.
Michael immediately walks over to the boom box and turns off our good vibrations. In the front yard, you can hear the hum of Courtney’s gardener pushing a leaf blower across the lawn.
“This song is shit, you guys,” he says, fumbling with the radio dial.
Michael is Kimberly’s douche boyfriend. He’s got these big, beautiful, sleepy eyes that always look like they’re on the verge of winking at you. But it’s not that you’re in on any joke, it’s that you are the joke. Like, if we were one of those third-grade coat hanger Styrofoam solar-system dioramas, he thinks he’s the sun and Kimberly is the Earth, even though Earth isn’t all that important unless you’re on it. He’s joined by Trevor, because Michael and Trevor are best friends who go everywhere together. Trevor is tall, with floppy hair that he lets fall into his face before he pushes it back. Michael is shorter, with tightly curled hair and muscles like a pit bull. He’s on the wrestling team, but nobody much cares about the wrestlers. Michael is handsome because his face comes together in a way that people think is interesting, which is why people care about him even though his sport is full of boys in leotards bending each other into pretzels and shoving their skindogs in each other’s faces.
Kimberly and Michael have been together since the end of ninth grade, before he shot up in height, so that for a while she was very tall and he was very short, but they were both beautiful, so nobody gave ’em too much shit. Kimberly has already picked out their children’s names—Christy, Linda, and Naomi, after the models. And if they pop out a boy, his name will be Georgi, after the Italian who gave us free cookies. I think Kimberly mostly likes Michael because he’s from New York and doesn’t give a fuck, and she spends her summers there with her father. He wooed her and all the rest of us with those gruff vowels that drag out around corners and stop abruptly against consonants. Later, we found out that his real accent isn’t nearly that thick and that he’d stolen those vowels from the outer boroughs. But by then it didn’t matter; Kimberly was hooked. Heather says it’s classic daddy issues.
We know Michael and Trevor about as well as you can know boys our age, by which I mean we laugh at their jokes and yell ugh when they annoy us and don’t rat them out when they do truly stupid shit, like light branches on fire and set them in the middle of the road just to see how passing cars respond. Honestly, sometimes being friends with boys our age is exhausting. It feels like it’s a lot of listening to a bunch of jibber jabber about everything they like and why what we like is silly. Just because sometimes our music comes wrapped in glitter doesn’t mean it’s empty.
Michael finally decides on Power 106. He raises his hands in the air and they become weapons, his thumb and index fingers cocked like two guns.
He drunkenly swaggers through the lyrics he doesn’t know. Like I said, Michael grew up partially in New York, so he likes to pretend he’s more street savvy than the rest of us, even though he grew up in Midtown and lives in Brentwood.
Trevor joins in at the chorus, “?‘Here is something you can’t understand—how I could just kill a man! Here is something you can’t understand—how I could just kill a man!’?”
They yell a few more verses and then run and cannonball into the pool.
Kimberly giggles at her boyfriend, and Courtney yells, “What the fuck?” because now she’s wet again.
A plane flies overhead. Trevor traces its path through the sky with his finger.
“God, I can’t get wait to get out of this shithole,” Trevor says. “Move somewhere with a little fucking culture.”
He just got his acceptance letter from NYU three days ago, and all of a sudden now everything about Los Angeles and California sucks. He also went to India with his parents last summer and now he’s oh so deep and a vegetarian. Kimberly and Michael make out across from me, which is awkward enough, but even more so after what happened last week. Normally I’d be talking, too, but the deeper she thrusts her tongue into his mouth, the more I feel like a dog with a mouthful of peanut butter.
“LA has plenty of culture,” Heather says.
“Yeah? Like what?”
“I mean, maybe if you actually ventured out of the Westside…”
“Dude, just ’cause you’ve gone to a taco stand or two doesn’t mean you know shit, either.”
Trevor and Heather are always fighting, mostly because both can be equally insufferable. They both act like they’re the only ones who watch CNN or read the newspaper and the rest of us know nothing about life just because we can’t quote Sonic Youth deep cuts. Heather says the rest of us are book smart but not life smart, that we’re sheltered from life’s realities. But, like, I’m black. I’m not that sheltered.
“You guys want to go somewhere else?” Michael says. On his left ear are three freckles and a sunburn that gets worse by the minute.
“The Beverly Center?”
“God, you guys are so lame sometimes.”
“Shut up and shave your pits.”
“Nobody’s ever home at the house down the street from mine. Some Saudi prince bought it and they’re doing major construction on it. They’re, like, never there. And they’ve got a bitchin’ pool.”
“Why do we need to go to another pool when we’re already at a pool?”
“?’Cause it has a slide and a cave and shit?”
Michael lives several blocks over, and so we decide to walk. Days like this, the salt of the ocean sticks in your nostrils and on your skin. Gravel rolls underfoot. There are homes with ivy hedges like forts and homes like wacky sculptures or with windows made up of other tiny windows. Occasionally you’ll see a fading home fighting against being demolished for something in Technicolor.
The boys go barefoot, their wet feet leaving sloppy prints across the concrete.
As we walk, a red double-decker tour bus pulls up alongside us and stops in front of one of the houses. The voice inside it bellows, “This is where Tom Hanks lives.”
“No, he doesn’t!” we say.
Several ruddy-faced tourists stick their cameras out the windows. The dude who actually lives here is an accountant to the stars, according to Courtney. Maybe even to Tom Hanks. So perhaps the tour bus driver isn’t that far off after all. Heather flashes them as they pull away.
Trevor drapes his arm around my shoulder. Everyone thinks he looks a little like Jason Priestley, but I think that’s being generous. Trevor’s my prom date, but I’m not into him like that. Sometimes it’s nice just to be near another person, to feel their warmth and the blood coursing through their veins, and to feel the both of you alive.
“Oh shiiiit, love connection.” Kimberly makes kissing faces in our direction. Michael looks back at us and rolls his eyes.
“Our kids would be so hot,” Trevor says. “Mixed kids are the hottest.”
Then he pulls away from me and retches into Tom Hanks’s accountant’s petunias.
There’s a hole in the construction fence where you can just raise the green tarp and enter. I pause in front of it. “Guys, maybe we shouldn’t go in there.”
“Are you afraid?” Kimberly says.
Yes. Breaking and entering isn’t exactly something someone who looks like me should do all willy-nilly. Or at all. But I don’t want to call attention to myself. Not like that.
“No,” I say. “It’s just that…”
“You don’t have to come, Ash. Nobody’s making you do anything,” Kimberly says. She says it all sweet and shit, but we all know it’s a challenge.
“Dude, I promise you it’s worth it.” Michael winks.
Inside, the addition to the house is a skeleton, all bones and no meat, not yet. The dust sticks to our bodies as we walk through wood and nails and concrete slabs, but also beer bottles and cigarette butts. A tractor presides over all these building blocks like a promise. The pool remains untouched, an oasis, as though the owners decided that it—and only it—was perfect, which it is.
A few dead flies float on the water’s surface. Trevor bends over to scoop them up with his hand.
Courtney, Heather, Kimberly, and I hold hands and jump. There’s the rush of water, the cold, the velocity of our bodies. We sink, and then back up we pop.
“Marco…,” Courtney yells.
“Polo…” Trevor belly flops in. Just like that, it’s on.
We continue our call-and-response across the length of the pool. Courtney finds Heather first, and then Heather finds Kimberly. Kimberly finds Trevor, and Trevor finds Michael, until the only person left to be discovered is me. I’ve gotten good at being invisible. I swim under the water to the grotto. There, my friends are echoes. Dampened, they sound far away.
Inside, the walls are made of fake rock that’s slightly slimy to the touch. There’s a plastic opening where a light source should be, but the bulb’s broken. Obscured from view, everything in the grotto feels like a secret.
“Marco!” Michael yells. He reaches his hands out and runs his fingertips across my shoulders, my face, my hair.
I don’t say anything back. He splashes the water around us in mini waves.
You should know right now that I’m mostly a good person. I think.
I don’t talk back to my parents, much. I would help an elderly person across the street, if there were any around. I get mostly As, with a few Bs in the subjects I don’t care about. I even listen when Heather drones on about how plastic bags and aerosol hair spray make the planet hotter. All this is to say that I’m a good daughter. A good student. A good friend. A good sister. I don’t have a choice.
“When you go out there in the world, you’re not just you, Ashley,” my grandma Opal said one summer while she braided my hair into four long strands that she embellished with yellow ribbons, “you’re all of us, your family, black folks. You have to be better than those white kids around you. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”
“I’m good, Grandma,” I said.
And I still am. Mostly.
“I found you…,” Michael whispers into the dark.
You should also know that I wasn’t entirely honest about Michael. Yes, he’s a douche. But he’s also really funny in a New Yorky way, smart and a little overconfident, but also somehow self-deprecating and insecure, and he can be really sweet and a great listener, and he’s got these beautiful curls like the ribbon on your favorite present.
Beneath the surface, he wraps his legs around mine and I wrap my arms around his shoulders until we’re intertwined and our heartbeats pound in tandem. He smells like sunscreen. Water pours in sheets around us like rain. The last time we were alone together it was raining, but instead of some fancy-ass pool, the two of us were in Michael’s crappy car. His lips graze my collarbone, and even though he’s Kimberly’s, together we’re electric.
“Polo!” I yell.
Kimberly and Courtney get into an argument over the rules of Marco Polo—Kimberly thinks you can get out of the pool to avoid being tagged, but Courtney insists that’s cheating, since we didn’t agree upon “fish out of water” rules beforehand. To broker peace, I suggest we stop swimming and start drinking.
We pass the bottle around like a communion cup. I roll the bitter of the beer around on my tongue. I don’t like beer, but we’re underage, so we can’t be choosy.
“What the hell?”
A crew of burly men in neon reflective vests and white hard hats enters, their faces red and sun chapped.
We scramble out of the pool and run through wood and glass and nails and trash. Pain hits my left foot, deep and searing. A piece of glass, part of a shattered beer bottle, is the culprit. The blood trickles in dark red lines down my foot.
I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be in AP physics right now, reviewing momentum and impulse. Right now, Mr. Holmes would be going into and out of focus.
“I’m calling the cops!” another hard hat yells after us.
“?‘Fuck tha police, fuck fuck fuck tha police.’?” Trevor laughs, then punctuates it with a belch.
Across town, the trial lets out for the day. The members of the jury step out into the open air and lift their faces to the sky, glad that after a long, dark day, there’s a bit of sunshine left.
No, I don’t care about any of it now. But I will.